House of Meetings

by Martin Amis

Hardcover, 2007





Knopf, (2007)


There were conjugal visits in the slave camps of the USSR. Valiant women would travel continental distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending a night, with their particular enemy of the people, in the "House of meetings". The consequences of these liaisons were almost invariably tragic. "House of meetings" is about one such liaison. It is a triangular romance: two brothers fall in love with the same girl, a nineteen-year-old Jewess, in Moscow, which is poised for massacre in the gap between the war and the death of Stalin. Both brothers are arrested, and their rivalry slowly complicates itself over a decade in the slave camp above the Arctic Circle.

Media reviews

House of Meetings is short, the prose is controlled, the humor sparse, while the characters strike us as real, or at least possible, people. It is a remarkable achievement, a version of the great Russian novel done in miniature, with echoes throughout of its mighty predecessors.
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Mr. Amis depicts these characters' lives with an economy of language and detail, choosing, after the debacle of the overwritten ''Yellow Dog,'' to rely on an almost fablelike minimalism to evoke the horrors of Norlag.
And the result, more often than not, comes to read like a wicked parody of the Amis style. Sometimes, indeed, it appears that the author has wholly abdicated in favour of Craig Brown.

User reviews

LibraryThing member pessoanongrata
I don't think anyone can deny that Amis' writerly powers are extraordinary; sentence by sentence he's one of the finest English stylists ever. He wins the war against cliche--nukes cliche to dust--and I would scrounge through his trash to read his grocery list.

Yet I want to trot out cliches about his books: his vision is keen, incisive, crystal clear...yet terribly fucking bleak. I wonder where his heart is in all of this. So I could say that the blood is clearly infused into the rhythms of his sentences, the Nabokovian brilliance of his imagery, the structure of his paragraphs. But where's the love? It can't all be tied up in language and black humor.

But if love were chinks of sunshine pressing through the clouds, he has a place to hide behind through 240-odd pages: a character to hide behind genius language, as if avoiding that sunshine in the guise of a novel. Confessing everything to his privileged daughter of the west, the main character is a gulag-survivor, a professional rapist, a soldier of WWII, an older brother. But dare I say it may be easy for Amis to hide here, in this grotto of depravity, considering that subject matter. House of Meetings attempts to swallow the entire Russian character, as if Russia were the main character, and her victims were her people, and all that was and is a literary creation, from Pushkin to Amis, are her victims as well; Amis, through his confessional, seems to say: Russia did this to our characters, to her people. It made us live a nightmare and we are the wandering ghosts of that fatal nightmare.

This is a cruel book. If you get through it to the end, the letter from his brother lets the light in. But it's brief and blinding.

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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I never expected to read this: a book by Martin Amis about life in a Russian forced-labour camp. It's like Solzhenitsyn in a way, only more than just a day's sojourn into the horror. And it would have to be Amis, choosing as he does a Russian war hero and notorious thug and rapist as his lead character.
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Prior to picking up "House of Meetings," "Dead Babies" was the only Amis I'd read. I found that novel almost offensively terrible, a shallow, sophomoric exercise in provocation for its own sake. I'm glad I gave Amis another chance, though. While Amis hasn't lost his taste for the grotesque, "House of Meetings" is a fearless novel that isn't afraid to describe some of the twentieth century's worst moments or to tackle it's thorniest ethical problems. It is also, to Amis's credit, compulsively readable and unwilling to waste time or space on sentimentality. The voice of Amis's now-aged narrator rings out clear as a bell from the book's pages, a remarkable achievement in so brief a book that covers so much ground.

"House of Meetings" tells the story of two brothers, both of whom are what the Soviet authorities used to call "politicals," attempting to survive incarceration in the Soviet gulags where millions of prisoners met their deaths. It's also an exploration of how different characters might behave when faced with an interminable, society-wide catastrophe. Even the novel's narrator, his brother, Lev, and his sister-in-law, Zoya do their best to survive emotionally and economically in post-war Russia, they are constantly reminded that their deaths - from starvation, the state, or the unforgiving Russian cliimate - might come at any time. Worst of all, they knew their fate may not be tied to any of their decisions, since the Soviet system often doled out punishment and reward in unpredictable and capricious ways. The novel asks whether one can remain human, concerned with love or art or morality, under such circumstances, and whether meaningful resistance is even possible when people must fight so hard to survive. It manages to turn the entertaining, and sometimes bitterly funny, story of three individuals into an effective elegy for the million now-nameless Russians that perished under Stalin.

Amis has clearly done his research here. For millions of Soviet citizens, these weren't just academic questions, and it's discouraging to note that most of the degrading scenes in this novel were most probably drawn from the historical record. He also takes us on a very comprehensive tour of gulag life, describing in careful detail the and subtle hierarchies and bizarre economies that existed among the prisoners. After Stalin dies and the brothers are freed, Amis offers a description of the marginal economic and cultural undergrounds that provided a necessary counterpoint to a drab, unhappy society drowning in bureaucracy. He even takes time to ruminate on the nature of the Russian soul, and, even though he's an Englishman by birth, he manages to tie these familiar generalizations in with his developing narrative so that they seem both accurate and trenchantly sad. Mixed up somewhere in all of this mess, life happens to these characters. Our narrator and his two companions meet, fall in love, have sex, work and grow, even if they're sometimes forced to make terrible compromises in order to do keep themselves from perishing. "House of Meetings," is, in its own way, a testament to human survival under the harshest conditions, evidence that a good story can emerge from even the darkest chapters of history.
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LibraryThing member bhowell
This is the first book I have read by Martin Amis though I have had him on my reading list for some time. I can therfore draw no comparisons between it and his previous books. I enjoyed reading the reviews by other members who did that. I can say however that Mr Amis is a very fine writer and I found this first person memoir of a survivor of Stalin's labour camps a compelling read. My overwhelming reaction was that he is just such a good writer. I definitely will be reading more of his books.
While the literacy and wit of the narrator may be unrealistic given his personal circumstances (no education) , it was nevertheless brilliant and entertaining. The book is quite readable, two sittings were just right. And I have to admit that the first sitting kept me up a bit late.
I did not find the story of the love triangle very interesting, suffering as it did from the usual male fantasy of a woman as nothing but a passive sexual being upon which they project their supposedly profound jealousy, violence and angst. But after all we put up with that in many great books so it is hard to fault Mr Amis for being traditional.
This is a Russian story, and the narrator survives WWII as a supposed war hero but is then sent to a slave -labour camp above the Arctic circle called Norlag. Later , his brother arrives at the same camp. Their brutal lives are described but this is in the context of their personal relationship and their shared history and the narrator's growing political consiousness. There is direct reference to Russia's leaders through the 20th century and the footnotes are a welcome aid. This is a political novel, a harsh commentary on the repressive politics of Russia, and the book ends with a discussion of Russia's dramatic fall in birhrate, perhaps a rational response to life.
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LibraryThing member nohablo
Beautiful, lush, hard-nosed prose of someone who clearly hammers together and prises apart sentences. Pitch-perfect diction, with the sort of OED, heat-seeking missile accuracy that speaks of dogged talent and workmanship.

However, has the same sort of emotional distance and aloofness as his memoir, Experience. Connects cerebrally but doesn't really hit any switches in the heart or gut.

But oh the prose.
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LibraryThing member kishields
The 4th or 5th of Amis's books that I've read, and it reminds me of many familiar patterns, themes and tones in his work. The prose is beautiful, though more concise in books like London Fields. The narrator is bitter and jealous, in conflict and competition with his brother. Their paths crisscross, one ascending as the other plummets. However, unlike other of his novels that I've read, this book is set in another place and time—in the Russian work camps, which Amis has researched very thoroughly. The book brought this setting and period of Russian history alive for me better than any other work I have read, including A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The grimness and hardship of Russians both inside and outside the camps is very well portrayed and while the characters are not cozy and lovable by any means, the book ends up being very affecting.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is a dark and frighteningly tender book. Amis masterfully crafts his narrator's voice and the surrounding characters, and his poetic prose makes even the most violent sections of the book both horrifying and brilliantly realized. Certainly, this isn't a book for everyone--the depictions of violence and work camps, not to mention hate, are too realistic to be taken easily. Amis' explorations here, though, are powerful and unrelenting. Yes, this is a dark and violent book built to explore darker issues. It is also a masterpiece, beautifully and written and perfectly conceived.… (more)
LibraryThing member maggieball
Martin Amis’ prose is a distinctive combination of droll black humour mingled with near purple theatrics. It’s acerbic and heady all at once. His characters deal with situations that concern everyone: thwarted love, identity and self-worth, but always amidst a grand setting of transition, whether that be a scene of historic atrocity such as the Holocaust or a brain damaging, personality-changing head blow. In his latest novel, House of Meetings, the setting takes us deep into a Soviet Gulag camp.The novel is told in epistolary flashback: an extended letter written by the narrator to his stepdaughter Venus. The narrator is, in part, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, on the Yenisei River in the Arctic Circle – a fancy cruiser near the Gulag the narrator was interned in. As his body travels around the Siberian wasteland of his old labour camp, his mind travels back in time to his imprisonment. The reader is put in the role of the healthy American stepdaughter; an unwilling confidante and participant in the events which are conveyed through the letter. We are alluded to, winked at, and made to feel pampered, and “burnished” in the face of the dying, and depraved.Venus’ name reminds us that, despite the pain and atrocities the novel doesn’t shy from recounting, the subject of this book is love – a point made by the narrator from the first page. His unrequited love for the beautiful Zoya provides the core of this book. Although as a character, Zoya remains a caricature—shaped like Betty Boop, and almost inarticulate next to the narrator—she provides a catalyst for the beautifully depicted love/hate relationship between the two brothers. The younger, uglier (half) brother is Lev, the poet who comes to the same labour camp, already married to Zoya.As with many other of Amis’ novels, the protagonist is far from pristine. Between self-deprecation and aggrandisement, he describes an often criminally unpleasant life, but we nevertheless come to understand him. There is an odd charm in his struggle to send off his last defining email and cope with an unopened revelation from his brother which will finally reveal the true nature of his past to him. Venus represents not just love, but life, health, the West. The narrator is Russia: corrupt, and withered. His farewell isn’t only to his stepdaughter, but also to life, as he finds himself dying, and is glad of it. Amidst the bravado is sorrow. The narrator laments the loss of his country, his love, and his life. These contradictions drive the narrative forward. The notion that this lengthy confession covering about 60 years, should be delivered in the casual format of email adds irony.Both the narrator’s and Lev’s feelings for Zoya are fuelled by the feelings the brothers have for one another. There is sibling rivalry, and protectiveness too, amidst the horrors of the camp, and afterwards. The intensity of Amis’ camp descriptions provide a backdrop for the plot which involves Lev’s stubborn pacifism, and the power that the memory of Zoya exerts over the brothers. Throughout the novel, metaphors are strikingly original and powerful: “All night I walked and crawled across a landscape overlaid with grit, a desert where each grain of sand, at some point or other, would have its time between my teeth.” (105) The eloquence always drives plot or characterisation, remaining subtle, even with recurring images like the “Wild Dogs of Predposylov” that haunt him, or the anthropomorphism in his extended metaphors. As the plot moves away from the gulag and into the post-prison relationship between the brothers, Lev becomes frailer and less successful. He loses Zoya and re-marries, suffering tragedy and disintegration, while the narrator grows wealthy, and tries to confront his demons back “home”.There is a ring of truth and emotive power in the historical veracity of House of Meeting’s setting. Amis has done his research well, and claims that an English author can’t really write about Russia don’t do justice to the deep sense of history and personal involvement that underpin this book. But House of Meetings really isn’t meant to be a realistic picture of life in the Soviet gulag. For that, Amis’ Koba the Dread provides a more literal trip into the atrocities of this period, which Amis makes clear is poorly understood in the West. Instead House of Meetings uses the setting to explore character and what is left when our carefully constructed roles in life are stripped away. Amis has every claim to being a master of that kind of exploration. In House of Meetings he has created an exciting novel, full of pathos that transcends the morality of nonfiction. It is a celebration of the beauty and horror of the human character in all of its frailties, and because of, rather than in spite of, contradiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member kirstiecat
It's always difficult for me to read books where I don't like the protagonist, especially when the novel is written in first person perspective. This one is sort of like that..I mean, the protagonist actually admits to raping all of these women and being brutish to others while put in a prison camp in Russia. He's tough and yet he's quite human too. This is the end of his life and he's looking back on it for perspective and relating all of this to his daughter as he's hungover and readying himself for death. It's an epic journey he takes us on, even if the length of the book is only a mere 240 pages long. It walks you through memories of a much more distant era of Stalin into the more present day hold up at Middle School Number One because of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia.

I also really love the writing style itself. Some of the metaphors and language overall is very effective..

Some quotes I like:

pg 13-14 "When you are old, noise comes to you as pain. Cold comes to you as pain. It wasn't like that when I was young. The wake-up: that hurt, and went on hurting more and more. But the cold didn't hurt. By the way, try crying and swearing above the Arctic Circle in winter. All your tears will freeze fast, and even your obscenities will turn to droplets of ice and tinkle to your feet. It weakened us, it profoundly undermined us, but it didn't come to us as pain. It answered something. It was like a searchlight playing over the universe of our hate."

pg 92 "Never mind for now about famine, flood, pestilence, and war: If God really cared about us, he would have never given us religion. But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply disappear-if God is a Russian."

pg 98 "Boredom is no longer the absence of emotion. It is itself an emotion , and a violent one. A silent tantrum of boredom."

pg. 122 "The massacre of the laughing men. I knew then that massacres want to happen. Massacres want there to be massacres."

pg.143 "You know, I can't find a Russian who believes it: "We wanted the best but it turned out as always." I can't find a Russian who believes that. They didn't want the best or so every Russian believes. They wanted what they got. They wanted the worst."

pg 207 "The planet has a bald patch and its central point is the Kombinat. There are no living trees in any direction for over a hundred versts. But some of the dead ones are still standing. Typically, two leafless, twigless branches remain; they point, not upward or outward, but downward, and meet at the trunk. Seen from a distance, the trees look like survivors of a concentration camp, wandering out to be counted, and shielding their shame with their hands. Above them, the watchtowers of the cableless pylons."

pg 238-239 "I had reached the end of philosophy: I knew how to die. And men don't know how to do that. It might even be that all the really staggering male exertions, both great and base, are brought on by this single incapacity. No other animal is asked to form an attitude to its own extinction. This is horribly difficult for us, and may be thought to mitigate our general notoriety...You need mass emotion-to know how to die."
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LibraryThing member paperhouses
I had almost given up on Amis doing Amis over and over again. But the prospect of his writing a russian novel intrigued me. I'm a sucker for those slavs. So glad I took the bait, if you can be glad of reading a book so monstrously depressing. Well realized, well crafted, well done. Perfect tone. Hadn't ever reflected so much on the culture of the gulag. Glad my grandfather got the hell out of Russia.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ameise1
This is a strong story about The Gulag. Even though it’s a fiction, it’s based on real incidents about the camps, the inmates and the Russian politic. The protagonist is writing his family story for his daughter. He is writing pitiless about what he had done but also about the system. He also tells the reader about his love to his brother which was an inmate of a camp, too. How he tried to protect him and how he admired but also hated his pacifism.
He shows us how such a camp was organised that there were classes between the inmates like in real life only much more brutal.

For me this story is a must-read. Isn't it so that there are still types of Gulag on our planet but we close our eyes to not see and notice how barbarous people are treated? Isn't it still so that there are people who point to political injustice and who get muzzled by the establishment?
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LibraryThing member DaveFragments
I fell in love with Amis' "The Information" and I hope this is just as good.
LibraryThing member col2910

There were conjugal visits in the slave camps of the USSR. Valiant women would travel continental distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending a night, with their particular enemy of the people, in the House of Meetings. The consequences of these liaisons were almost invariably tragic. House of Meetings is about one such liaison. It is a triangular romance: two brothers fall in love with the same girl, a nineteen-year-old Jewess, in Moscow, which is poised for pogrom in the gap between the war and the death of Stalin. Both brothers are arrested, and their rivalry slowly complicates itself over a decade in the slave camp above the Arctic Circle.


To be brutally honest here I wasn't expecting a whole barrel of laughs from Amis. In that respect he didn't disappoint. What I was expecting though after reading various comments on the book..........

'Amis draws on his considerable talent, intelligence, compassion and anger in this outstanding short novel' -- Irish Times

`Amis engages compellingly and eloquently with the "Russian Soul"'
-- The Sunday Telegraph

`Amis writes with enough force to entertain even while describing depravity'
-- Telegraph

`Amis' mini Russian epic... is audacious, shocking and the best thing he's done in years' -- Evening Standard

`Martin Amis is always essential reading' -- The Times

`Some of the best, most highly charged prose of Amis's career' -- Guardian

`This is the most enjoyable Amis novel for some time' -- Sunday Herald

...... was a book that interested me, both in respect of his characters and their experiences in the Soviet Gulag. This didn't happen in either instance.

I couldn't have cared less - in fact after about 50 pages into this short novel I was fervently wishing that the brothers and anyone they crossed paths with had been exterminated on page 1 or which point the book could have hopefully ended.

Had it been twice the length, I would have been severely tempted to give up on it, something I'm loathe to do for several reasons.

A) It feels like the author has beaten me.

B) The book might just get better, if I read a few pages more, it will turn a corner surely.

C) A quest for understanding - a bit like the emperor's clothes if all these other people see gold why am I viewing coal dust? What aren't I getting?

Previously I have read Amis's non-fiction book, The Second Plane, which was a collection of articles and essays he wrote about post-9/11. This was readable and enjoyable and interesting - everything that House Of Meetings wasn't.

Maybe I lack understanding, intellect or get what he was driving at in the book. If so, it's not something I'll lose any sleep over. There are hundreds of other books on my TBR Mountain that I will enjoy much more.

What does concern me slightly, and I have no-one else to blame but myself, is the 10 or so other Amis books on the pile to be read......Pregnant Widow, Dead Babies, Yellow Dog, Money etc etc............they can't all be as turgid can they?

In summary, in case I have sat on the fence absolute stinker of a book.

Quite the worst thing I've read since Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller earlier this year.

1 from 5

I paid a pound for this at a charity shop, which on reflection was about 90p too much.
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LibraryThing member Gary10
I feel like I should like Martin Amis more than I do! Well written but I did not find it that engaging. Maybe it is impossible to talk about Stalin's work camps and have it be pleasant. But in spite of the fact that you would think you could find sympathy for people being so mistreated, the main characters in this book do not evoke much sympathy. I always find it hard to relate to a book when you dont really like any of the characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member chengiz
The one good thing about this book is that it is quite readable, I finished it in two sittings (it helps that I find the Soviet Union fascinating -- in a "thank God I wasnt born there" way). Much of the rest often feels good and bad at the same time.The protagonist/narrator *describes* himself as angry, well-read, a war veteran and rapist, labour-camp survivor, black marketeer, technical expert (ie. he is interesting, flawed, multifarious) but what *comes across* due to the writing is a pretentious, literary bore (Amis himself?). The descriptions of the Gulag and insights into the Soviet Union are well put, but there is no feeling in them. Perhaps it's because Amis isnt Russian and it shows: one cant *write* British and *be* Russian at the same time (apparently the narrator's English is so good because he dated an Englishwoman!).The suspense about the brother's letter is felt well by the reader, but there is absolutely no reason for keeping it. Moreover, the contents of the letter are totally and *pretentiously* anticlimactic. The writing towards the end feels confused, and it could be because after the anticlimax of the letter, all I wanted to do was finish the book fast. On the whole, not a bad read, but left me with a "what was the point" dissatisfied feeling, so I wouldnt recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member bsiemens
As I finish this novel, I am left with nothing less than a feeling of having being stunned. The manner, in which the main character recounts events, suggests a soul delving that leaves everything bare; including the souls of the two people closest to him - a former wife and his dead brother. Told in the first person, the protagonist seeks to explain himself to a daughter, who will read the text posthumously; parallels abound in truths received after his own brother's death. It's not an easy read, but it is well worth the struggle.… (more)
LibraryThing member RickK
Found it a little hard to follow but enjoyed Amis' writing style. Perhaps the subject matter was something that I just didn't have enough insight into


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